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Against the NCAA

March Madness is the crown jewel in the NCAA’s multibillion dollar empire. But the labor that generates this wealth remains unpaid.

Today’s NCAA men’s basketball Final Four games and Monday’s national championship are among the biggest events in sports, generating billions in broadcasting and licensing dollars.

So how much money is the NCAA making? In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting gave the association $10.8 billion for a fourteen-year broadcast monopoly on March Madness games. Estimated ad revenue for the 2013 tournament reached $1.15 billion, while ticket revenue brought in another $71.7 million. Last year no less than thirty-five coaches pulled down salaries higher than $1 million before bonuses; Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski topped the list with an income of more than $9.6 million.

Players’ experience is strikingly different, as NBA great and former UCLA Bruin Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote last year in Jacobin:

I was walking out on the court a hero, but into my bedroom a pauper. Naturally, I felt exploited and dissatisfied.

Life for student-athletes is no longer the quaint Americana fantasy of the homecoming bonfire and a celebration at the malt shop. It’s big business in which everyone is making money — everyone except the eighteen to twenty-one-year-old kids who every game risk permanent career-ending injuries.

It’s the kind of injustice that just shouldn’t sit right with American workers who face similar uncertainty every day.

The NCAA disagrees that college players are like other workers. They claim that because college players are students as well as athletes, players’ relationships with their host universities are fundamentally academic — not vocational.

By this logic, college athletes don’t perform unpaid labor that generates billions of dollars. Rather, they’re just students who happen to participate in a uniquely lucrative extracurricular activity. (University administrators have commonly used this tactic to deny workplace rights to graduate workers too, attaching the prefix “student” to “worker” as a way to dodge employer responsibilities.)

But recently, college athletes have taken bold steps to challenge this system of unpaid labor, seeing the NCAA’s argument for what it is: a legal head fake that excludes broad categories of employees from worker protections. Samir Sonti’s article about the College Athletics Players Association describes the unionization efforts of football players at Northwestern University:

[The NCAA’s] ability to get intercollegiate athletes to work while avoiding all the responsibilities associated with formally employing them — a relationship on the rise throughout the global economy, from subcontracted janitors cleaning New York City office towers to Bangladeshi garment workers producing clothing for Walmart — is, for the first time, being directly challenged.

That any group of people in their late teens and early twenties, football players or otherwise, thought to address their workplace grievances through organizing is, in this rabidly anti-union place and time, nothing short of remarkable. If they succeed (which is still far from certain), their victory could reverberate across the intercollegiate athletic world, transforming the NCAA in the process. So when the NCAA valorizes their mythical student-athlete, we should respond by calling them what they really are: workers. And, hopefully, maybe even union workers.

When faced with abusive workplace conditions, workers often strike. And college athletic workers are no exception.

Last season, citing a list of grievances that limited their ability to excel, football players at Grambling State University, a historically black college in Louisiana, went on a wildcat strike. They walked out of morning weight-training, then refused to practice or participate in an upcoming competition. As Brendan O’Connor wrote at the time:

These athletes are competitors: not only do they want to play, they want to win. And yet when they advocate for themselves in an attempt to be given the chance to do so, they are punished. It seems ludicrous — but then again, is it so strange that workers would be denied the resources necessary to execute their labor in the most efficient, fulfilling way possible? One does not have to look too far to find yet another iteration of the great absurdity of capitalism: that the myopic focus on revenue streams and profit undermines itself, alienating workers who want to succeed and to flourish in their work.

Although the NCAA’s position at the apex of a multi-billion-dollar athletics-entertainment complex remains largely secure, college athletes’ efforts to unionize over the past few years have already shifted the political landscape of college sports. They’ve transformed the way we watch games.

All the ecstasy and exhilaration we get from college athletics are a product of players’ effort and talent, yet the same players are deliberately excluded from the institutions that convert that value into profit. When athletes organize as workers, they remind us that the value produced by college athletics comes from the labor of those on the court. And as long as that labor is stolen rather than rewarded, we should be rooting for the players and against the NCAA.